IN MILITARY TERMS, Europe's contribution to the war on terrorism has been modest. More than once its diplomats have worked at cross-purposes with those of the Bush administration. There is reason to doubt whether most Europeans really understand the threat of Islamic extremism or agree with Americans that an overarching, generational commitment must be made to defeating it. Yet this month the European Union launched an initiative that eventually may contribute as much to overcoming Muslim militants as anything the United States has done since Sept. 11, 2001. It agreed to begin formal membership negotiations with Turkey, a country of about 70 million Muslims that in more ways than one serves as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. If the talks progress successfully, both Europe and Turkey will be positively transformed -- and the "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam sought by ideologues such as Osama bin Laden will be far less likely.
The decision to open the European door to Turkey was long in coming -- 41 years, by Ankara's count -- and difficult to make. It required considerable political courage from leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who acted against public sentiment in their countries and allowed domestic opponents to score points at their expense. Most French and Germans don't consider Turks to be Europeans and do not want them inside a union that is growing steadily more integrated, with a common currency and a constitution waiting to be ratified. But European leaders wisely recognized that they have a precious opportunity to promote and consolidate democracy, human rights and stability in a key Muslim nation, one that borders Syria, Iraq and Iran. That Turkey's historically strong ties to the United States are under unprecedented strain, largely because of the war in Iraq, made the European outreach even more important.
The European Union already has had a powerful effect on Turkey. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim who espouses moderation and tolerance, Turkey has embraced far-reaching political and economic reforms in the past two years. It has given new rights to its Kurdish minority, distanced the military from government and revised its penal code, in addition to carrying out economic reforms that have caused its once-crippled economy to take off. Negotiations with the E.U., which could last for more than a decade, will require Turkey to expand and entrench these reforms; at best, the process could solidify its identity as a prosperous Muslim country that embraces secular democratic government and aligns itself with the West. The value of this change to the West's broader effort to combat Islamic totalitarianism would be incalculable.
Much could still go wrong. Turkey is far poorer than the current members of the European Union, and it will have to develop fast to make accession feasible even in a decade. It will have to adjust its own approach to religion: Turks are far more religious than most Europeans, but the Turkish state is so zealous about preserving its secular character that it looks intolerant compared with Western governments. The greatest danger, however, lies with the Europeans. There will be a strong temptation to string Turkey along, so as to exercise political leverage, while ultimately withholding the prize of membership. France and Austria have already promised their voters that referendums will be held before Turkey is admitted; without a sea change in public opinion, these will ensure Turkey's rejection. It will be the responsibility of European leaders to do everything possible in the coming years to overcome the gap between the West and this Muslim power; more than the future of the European Union depends on it.